Sunday, May 7, 2023

Nintendo Souvenir Kyoto Playing Cards, at last

This is a story about a very special item in my collection, the Nintendo Souvenir Kyoto Playing Cards.

Nintendo's hometown Kyoto

Kyoto is famous for many things. Before Tokyo, it was the official capital of Japan for over a thousand years, and it is still considered the cultural capital. With hundreds if not thousands of historical sites, it is a major tourist attraction for domestic and foreign visitors.

Kyoto is also the town where Nintendo was founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi, 133 years ago. It has remained the heart of the company's operation to this day.

If you would check Mario's passport, and that of countless other Nintendo creations, you would find Kyoto as the place of birth.

A nice example of the tie between Nintendo and Kyoto is this photo taken at the start of the year in 1949. Nintendo was already sixty years old at the time.

The photo shows a group of (or all?) company employees posing in front of the gate of the Fushimi-inari Shrine, located in the Fushimi ward in the south of Kyoto. This shrine is a popular location to celebrate the start of the new year, one of the most important traditions in Japan.

The gate of this shrine can easily be recognized by the two fox statues standing on either side in front of it.

This photo is a great document of the company at the time. Unfortunately we do not know who all people are that we see here, in their best kimonos and suits. We suspect that the company president at the time, Fusajiro's successor Sekiryo Yamauchi, must be in it. As well as his grandson and future president Hiroshi Yamauchi. But we do not know for sure.

What is undoubtably clear, is that this is a company that is part of the fabric of the city of Kyoto. The two banners on either side of the picture state "Kyoto Nintendo" (京都任天堂).

This connection between Nintendo and Kyoto has remained strong ever since, as is also evident from the images below, taken from a Nintendo company guide from 2012.

Although the company's playfield has become global, Nintendo conducts that business from one place: Kyoto.

Nintendo Souvenir Kyoto Playing Cards

From the moment I first saw the content of the 1950s company report shown below, I have been searching for a particular set of Nintendo playing cards.

This deck, called Souvenir Kyoto Playing Cards, was presented in this document together with many other types of playing cards that Nintendo offered at the time. Of all the products included in this catalogue, this one intrigued me the most.

The concept of playing cards with photos aimed at tourists is not original in itself.

US playing card deck from early 20th century (image taken from eBay auction)

In fact, the design used by Nintendo for the Souvenir Kyoto Playing Cards, with the oval picture format and pastel color tones, was very common already decades ago in North America.

An example is shown here from the 1920s, from an American playing card manufacturer, that covers Yellowstone park. Countless others exist as well, by many different makers, centered around other cities, regions or landmarks.

Nintendo's Souvenir Kyoto Playing Cards deck appealed to me for three reasons: firstly, obviously, it is produced by Nintendo. For that reason alone it is a candidate to be added to the collection. Secondly, it provides a glimpse into a time when Japan's tourist industry was still in its infancy. But most of all, it is special because it covers Nintendo's hometown Kyoto. Made by Nintendo in Kyoto, about Kyoto.

The first discovery, from happiness to disappointment

Finding a deck of these cards turned out to be very difficult. In over twenty years of collecting, I did not come across a single copy. Nor did I meet another collector who had one in their possession.

But I was patient and persisted, and then one day in August of last year I finally found one in an online auction. Even better, it was a pair, a blue and red back version, both unused and unopened. What a great find, seventy year old cards in, I assumed, like-new condition.

However, my excitement was quickly tempered, when it turned out that all cards in both decks had fused together to form a single paper brick. There was no way of splitting the decks into single cards again, without tearing up the paper and severely damaging the prints. They were destined to remain bricks forever.

I had hoped to view Kyoto in the 1950s as presented by these cards. But all that was visible was the picture of The Tofukuji Temple on a single example card, a teaser, stuck to the back of the box. The rest remained hidden inside the bricks.

When I shared the story on this blog, about this find and the resulting mini-drama, several game news sites picked up the story, including this piece by Kotaku.

Of course, I continued looking for better copies of these cards. But given their rarity, and the time it had taken to find these first decks, I did not expect result any time soon.

The second discovery, surprises and back to happiness

However, as is often the case these days, the Internet helped out. Within months after posting the story online, I was offered two decks, by two different people, both from the United States. They approached me separately after reading about these cards on this blog.

Two become four

The first was a gentleman called David, from Amarillo, Texas. David runs a Facebook group called Playing Card Exchange. He had obtained a Nintendo Souvenir Kyoto Playing Cards deck some time ago through an estate sale.

The previous owner, who was from Chicago, had passed away. It is not known for certain how the deck came into his possession, though it is believed he may have picked it up during one of his business trips to Japan.

Although the deck fitted David's eclectic collection of rare playing cards from around the world, after some deliberation and messages back and forth, we came to an agreement and I acquired the deck from him. In the end, David believed the deck was best suited to replace one of the "bricks" in my Nintendo collection, which I appreciated greatly.

The deck that David sent me was in wonderful condition. Although it was opened, the cards were hardly used, and in pristine state. The box still had the protective transparent wrapper around it.

As you can image, I was already over moon because of the deck that David had offered. But to my great surprise, I received another message the next day!

That second message was from a lady named Kyra, who lives in Portland, Oregon. A copy of the Souvenir Kyoto Playing Cards had been discovered in an abandoned house in her area. Not knowing anything about the cards, she searched online, found my post and contacted me.

A second deal was struck, and one more deck was sent my way. Like the deck from Texas / Chicago, this deck was opened but virtually unused, and in perfect condition.

It is not known who the original owner of this deck of cards was, and how it had made its way from Japan to the west of the Unites States. Did the owner buy it during a trip to Japan (for military service, for business or as a tourist), or was it a gift from somebody else? We will likely never find out.

The deck from Oregon even included the sample card.

Within just a few weeks, the number of Souvenir Kyoto Playing Cards in my collection had gone from two to four. And for the last two you can say that I did not find them, they found me!

And what was even more wonderful: the deck from Texas had red backs and the backs from the Oregon deck were blue. So, they formed a new red and blue pair, just like the two "bricks".

For the first time I was able to take a look at the cards.

Besides Nintendo's familiar ace of spades, a joker card and a card with contract bridge rules, a total of 51 picture cards is included in each deck. The blue and red card decks feature the same pictures.

Each of the picture cards has an unique photo related to Kyoto, covering many different topics, like people, buildings, art and nature. The photos are spread seemingly randomly over the four card suites, not grouped by theme or so.

Now, without further ado, let's take a tour around Kyoto in the 1950s!

Nintendo Souvenir Kyoto Playing Cards, a tour through Kyoto

After the ace of spades, which features the Nintendo logo and no photo, the first picture that we see is that of the Fushimi-inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社). The same shrine used as backdrop for that Nintendo company photo taken around ten years prior, that we saw at the start of this post.

Three cards are dedicated to the imperial heritage of Kyoto: The Imperial Palace (京都御所), The Katsura Imperial Villa (桂離宮), Shishin-den, and The Hall of Imperial Ceremony (紫宸殿).

There is no city in Japan that can match Kyoto's wealth of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. There are around 2.000 in the city in total, including some of the oldest and most revered in the country.

It is no surprise therefor that multiple cards are dedicated to these temples and shrines, including The Ryoanji Temple (竜安寺), The Kiyomizu-dera Temple (清水寺), The Tofukuji Temple (東福寺), The Higashihongangi Temple (東本願寺) and The Buyodoin Temple in neighbouring Uji City (平等院, 宇治市).

The remaining temple cards cover: The Tower of Toji Temple (五重塔, 東寺), The Honnoji Temple (本能寺), The Tower of Sanpoin Temple (醍醐寺, 五重塔) and The Nanzenji Temple (南禅寺).

Next are the The Kamikamo Shrine (上賀茂神社), The Heian Shrine (平安神宮) and The Garden of Heian Shrine (平安神宮の日本庭園).

On the following three cards we see Buddhas and bodhisattva figures, from Thirty-Three-Span Hall (三十三間堂), The Koryuji Temple (広隆寺) and the Peace Memorial Statue, Heiwa Kwannon (霊山観音). 

Two of Kyoto's much loved and busy tourist attractions are The Golden pavilion (金閣寺 or Kinkaku-ji) and The Silver Pavilion (銀閣寺 or Ginkaku-ji).

The last two historic buildings included are The Nijo Castle (二条城) and the Rakushisha (落柿舎) hut, a famous landmark in the world of haiku (poet Bashō once stayed here).

Kyoto's modern building are covered by Kyoto Station (京都駅), Kyoto Prefectural Government (京都府庁), City Hall (京都市役所), Kyoto University (京都大学) and the Kyoto Minami-za Theater (南座).

Art is included through The municipal Art Museum (京都市美術館) and The National Art Museum (京都国立博物館), that feature Japanese as well as Western art. Prominently shown on these cards are two statues by French sculptor Rodin, that were recently put on display in Kyoto. These came from the collection of a Japanese art collector called Kojiro Matsukata.

Festivals (matsuri) are an important part of Japan's cultural and social live, and some of the largest and most well-known take place in Kyoto, including the so-called "big three": the Gion Festival (祇園祭), the Aoi Festival (葵祭) and the Jidai Matsuri (時代祭). The fourth festival shown is the historical boating event called Mifune Festival (三船祭).

The next series shows various girls and woman figures: a Maiko or Geisha Apprentice (舞妓), a Geisha Girl (芸者), a Oharame or Ohara Maiden (大原女) and a Shimabara Tayu (嶋原太夫). Oharame are historical female peddlers of firewood, and Shimabara Tayu are the highest class of traditional courtesan.

Note that the Geisha girl is playing a game of Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, the card game based around 100 poems, very possibly with cards made by Nintendo.

Art and craft is covered by the images of Cloissone (七宝焼き), the Kyoto yuzen Print (友禅染) and Kyoto dolls (京人形).

Three famous landmarks around Kyoto are the Sanjo Bridge (三条大橋), the Ozawanoike (大沢池) pond and the Maruyama Park (円山公園).

Nature scenes are included as well, with a Cherry Blossom in front of the Heian Shrine (サクラ, 平安神宮), Takao in Autumn (高雄) and The Hozu Rapid (保津急流).

Kyoto is surrounded  beautiful nature, and the last three photo cards show some more examples of this: Arashiyama (嵐山) with the famous bamboo grove, the Daimonji (大文字) festival where huge bonfires are lit on mountains facing the city, and Mount Hiei (比叡山)

This concludes the photo tour of Kyoto. The remaing cards in the deck are shown below, as well as the two back versions.

Hope you enjoyed this as much as I did. All's well that ends well!

For a more extensive coverage of the first and less successful discovery of these cards, check this previous post, and for a detailed card by card view, take a look here

Nintendo company image taken from the book Showa in Kyoto City, with thanks to Guillaume (@NintendoMemo on Twitter) for kindly proving the scan.


  1. Beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing this with the world. Your story has been very interesting to follow.

    1. I am glad you like it, and thanks for letting me know.

  2. Amazing story, and thanks a lot for having shared the pictures of these rare cards!

    1. Sharing these stories is what I started this blog for, so it is always great to hear it is appreciated!

  3. This was an amazing read! It was so nice to hear that this story had a satisfying ending! I'm glad you got the cards and got to share them with us! It's wonderful to see this little piece of history!

  4. Fascinating story! I too have this deck, blue back in great condition. Couple of things to note about mine. The spare card is 4S, and is within the deck. There are no signs either on the back or on the card that they were ever attached. No, Bridge card in mine, but instead a folded piece of paper, double sided, all in Japanese, which details how to play bridge ,as well as the scores. I only got it in Feb this year, as part of a 1600 deck hoard and I nearly threw it in the "to get rid of" pile, when I saw the word NIntendo. I thought they were likely a modern deck from the Noughties! Big shout out to TIm Bingham for bringing my attention to your site, so that I could read your journey!

    1. Interesting to hear about these variations. Thanks for letting me know. I would love to receive some pictures of your deck. If you don't mind sharing these, please email them to the contact address mentioned on top of the page.